David Jones Under Fire, while Wilfred Owen Draws the Blinds

Today is another quiet day–between the rehearsal and the big poetry reading in London, that is. On the actual front, at least where David Jones‘s battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers is holding trenches, it is less so:

On 11 December the bombardment was so intense that they retreated from the forward trench. The enemy advanced, entered the trench under cover of the barrage and, finding it empty, retired.[1]

 

And that’s all I know about that. At Scarborough, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, mixing news of his minor doings with strong reassurances that she remains his most favored correspondent.

Tuesday!!!
My own Mother,

I wonder how you are disporting yourself at Alpenrose. Life here is a mixture of wind, sand, crumbs on carpets, telephones, signatures, clean sheets, shortage of meat, and too many money-sums. But I like it. For one thing I fell so suddenly into mental preoccupations that there was no dallying with regrets for leaving Home. I have not even written to Sassoon or anyone.

Yup, the same old bouyant tone… covering up a bold faced lie?  Unless there is a worse-than-usual mix-up about the dating of Owen’s letters (which is far from impossible), he wrote to Sassoon only five days ago.

Is something afoot? Perhaps! (Probably not). Owen natters on uneventfully for the rest of the letter:

We are getting four maidservants and a page, as these boys are being overworked at present. You would love to see me keeping an eye on the charwoman…

I ‘get out’ for an hour or two daily, if only to promenade the ‘arrested’ subaltern… There is also a Major under arrest for striking a private. I have to keep looking them up.

The Hotel is a pleasanter place even than the Queen’s at Southport, well furnished & commodious. My room has hideous furniture, but a comfortable bed—and fireplace. My personal servant had a bad shell shock in Gallipoli, while lying sun-stricken. He was about a year in hospital, but has all his wits about him now. . . .[2]

I must now go and see that every blind is drawn, aye and double-drawn.

Always your own W.E.O![3]

it is only a coincidence, I think–but an eerie one–that one of his best poems ends with the same action, “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 179.
  2. Here, with no clue as to why, the editor, Harold Owen, omits "seventy-seven words."
  3. Collected Letters, 515-16.

George Coppard Bleeds Anew; Wilfred Owen Writes Himself into a Hospital Bed

We step away from Cambrai, today, and visit with one of its survivors, George Coppard, back in Blighty.

At lunchtime on 2 December, when I lay propped up in bed to deal with the welcome contents on my tray, I became aware of a change of sensation in my thigh. Throwing back the clothes I saw that the bandages were drenched in blood… I yelled out with fearful wind-up. A young nurse rushed across the ward, took one look at the bloody sight and dashed off. With amazing speed she returned with a young Indian doctor. He pressed hard on my groin and the bleeding stopped. The nurse lashed a rubber tourniquet above the wound, leaving me pillowless while the operating theatre was being made ready.[1]

A frightening experience… one of many, here, made significantly less worrisome for the reader by its being told in the first person.

 

Our only other tidbit for today, a century back, is this letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother. It’s a letter full of ordinary conversation… which mentions, in passing, the beginning of an extraordinary poem.

Sunday[2]

Dearest Mother,

I wrote in the middle of the week. Did you get a complete letter?

For I have discovered a page of writing to you among my papers. This afternoon I had a fire in my grate, which smokes horribly in the wind. Thus I finished an important poem this afternoon, in the right atmosphere…

The draft is currently entitled “Wild With All Regrets”–another Tennyson reference–and it carries a prospective dedication to Siegfried Sassoon. But the poem is not what we might expect. There is Owen’s sensuousness, and a version of his effusiveness, too, but this is nothing like a love poem. And yet there is that great access of empathy that makes even Owen’s most terrifying war poems seem something like a love poem… here, he takes on the voice of a terribly wounded soldier.

 

My arms have mutinied against me — brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read. There: it’s no use. Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old. But now,
Not to live old seems awful: not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting, — all the arts of hurting!
— Well, that’s what I learnt. That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes. God! For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring! Is one too hard to spare? Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

Yes, there’s the orderly. He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever, —
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust, —
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust, — in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
A flea would do. If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

Which I shan’t manage now. Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.

I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.

I wonder whether the soldier’s wish, in the middle of the poem, to bargain for new life by accepting the dirtiest of jobs, is an echo of Achilles’ thoughts in the Odyssey…

It is strange, isn’t it, to take a break from working on a piece like this to write an everyday letter-to-mum? But, then again, that is how we all live–only perhaps less intensely.

Here I have a certain amount of what might degenerate into worry, but it doesn’t with me. I think my chief trouble is watching that hundreds of windows are shaded at 4 p.m. And no unnecessary lights burning. I think I have hereditary aptitudes for this. I housekeep on a scale that would fairly stagger you and Mary, don’t you know…

I hope you’ll see Dunsden & the Vicar..

Ever your boy Wilfred

Am writing on my knee.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. Misdated to tomorrow by Owen's editor.
  3. Collected Letters, 513-4

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

Jack Martin on a Just Punishment; Wilfred Owen Among the Literary Lights; Siegfried Sassoon Disabuses Lady Ottoline Morrell

Jack Martin, now waiting for reassignment to Italy, has an amusing story today, a century back, of generalship-as-moral instruction:

Had a practice stunt on the dunes repelling imaginary Austrians. I was running a Visual Station and of course we had divested ourselves of our equipment but the runners had to keep theirs on. Presently the Brigadier came along and after a few enquiries said ‘A shell has now dropped here and killed those men who are wearing their equipment. So they can get back to their billets at once…’ We leave here on Monday but I haven’t heard any details yet.[1]

Primary school teachers would greet this particular adverse stroke of artillery-fortune with approval, I think.

 

But the main action is not behind the lines in France today, but rather at home, in London and Edinburgh. Wilfred Owen’s letter, written tomorrow (a century back) to his mother, tells the tale best.[2] It’s a bit like one of those irritating “which living writers would you most like to eat dinner with?” questions. Except that he actually is:

Had a memorable dinner at the Reform last night, & stayed talking with Ross till one A.M. I and my work are a success. I had already sent something to the Nation which hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems the Editor[3] has started talking of me, and Wells told me he had heard of me through that Editor! H.G.W. said some rare things for my edification, & told me a lot of secrets. I only felt ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh at Arnold Bennett. Wells is easily top dog when it comes to jests, and I’m afraid I took his side, and told Bennett I disapproved of his gaudy silk handkerchief!

…I got Bennett into a corner about Sassoon. I think they ‘noticed’ me because I stood up to them both politely when they shook hands to go, and argumentatively….[4]

 

Yesterday I quoted Siegfried Sassoon‘s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, on how Sassoon treated the visit of Lady Ottoline Morrell much as he had Robert Graves’s: by going about his business–namely playing golf–and only afterwards paying her some attention. But there was another sense in which LadyOttoline’s visit was similar to Graves’s: there were hard feelings deriving from an explicit clarification of sexual orientation.

While sexual attraction does not seem to have ever been an important element in the Graves-Sassoon relationship[5]–Graves had a crush of some sort but was not interested in sex, while Sassoon was not physically attracted to Graves–Graves opened a rift in the relationship when he announced his love for Nancy Nicholson. In this case, Lady Ottoline had evidently cherished certain hopes, but Sassoon will now definitively disabuse her. Today, a century back, they had a long walk and a short answer, in which “he told her quite specifically that he could ‘only like men, that women were antipathetic to him.'”

This wasn’t any lighthearted clearing of the air–“but, darling, I’m gay!”–but rather a fairly nasty encounter. Sexual preference aside, Sassoon has frequently shown a contempt for women bordering on (or making lengthy inroads into) misogyny, and he also apparently told Lady Ottoline, who was even more eccentrically dressed today than usual, that she was too “artificial” to take seriously. Sassoon, as self-absorbed as most poets and also as self-absorbed as most thoughtlessly immature young men, seems to be exhibiting merely a doubled cruelty, rather than any subtle binary vision. Lost in all this, too, is the context: he may have mocked Lady Ottoline behind her back the whole time he accepted her hospitality and made use of her connections, but adding this belittling sting to his rejection of her may not just be callousness or callowness–he is also clearing his flank as he retreats, leaving no question that he no longer wants anything to do with the pacifist/protest movement…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 123.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  3. H.W. Massingham; the poem in question is "Miners," to be published in January.
  4. Collected Letters, 507.
  5. This with all this with the usual caveats about reading between the lines in situations where openness about homosexuality was not possible, plus the usual complexity of parsing lines of love in tumultuous relationships.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.

Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

Edmund Blunden Marches West of Ruin and into Dreary New Quarters; Frederic Manning Confined to His; Siegfried Sassoon Hastens to Explain Himself to a Looming Lady Ottoline

Frederic Manning reported himself sick today, a century back. But, unfortunately, everyone knew that he had been out drinking the night before, and the Medical Officer refused to acknowledge the fiction, ordering him confined to quarters. Manning’s C.O., however, dragged his feet, no doubt debating how exactly to report this lapse–so soon after an exonerating Medical Board–to the War Office.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is keeping up with his correspondence. Lady Ottoline Morrell, who took Sassoon’s deflection from the anti-war cause in stride, seems to be less enthused about his coming defection. I’m not sure exactly what she has written to him, but there is a strong sense that she has demanded an explanation about how exactly he plans to rejoin the war effort without considering himself a traitor to her cause.

28 October 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Ottoline,

The trouble is that if I continue my protesting attitude openly after being passed for General Service they will call it a ‘recrudescence’ or relapse and keep me shut up here or elsewhere. They will never court-martial me. The only chance would be—after being passed fit—to get an outside opinion from a man like Mercier. I don’t quite know how they’d act if he said I was normal.

So Sassoon is still thinking of his return in terms of guarantees and bureaucratic arm-twistings on the matter of his sanity, rather than success of the appeal, made by Rivers and Sassoon’s other friends, to his sense of loyalty to the fighting troops. What Sassoon writes doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and he says nothing, yet, to Lady Ottoline about his having skipped a medical board… It’s hard to tell if he acts as if he holds the cards in order to reassure her that he is still a principled pacifist or in order to conceal from himself that he has decided to give in–and that he only has Rivers’s assurances that this is a compromise rather than an unconditional surrender.

At present the War Office has been informed that the only conditions under which I will undertake soldiering again are with my old Battalion in France, which makes it fairly clear. I mean to get a written guarantee from them before I do anything definite, as I know their ways too well. I am glad you like ‘Death’s Brotherhood‘. It is the best that is in me, however badly I may have expressed it.

Nor does he want a visit from the eminent pacifist:

It isn’t worth while your corning all the way to Edinburgh in this awful weather. Wait a bit—I may be getting away soon…

I am not depressed—only strung up for supreme efforts—whether they’ll be out in that charnel-place or not is in the hands of chance. Only I want to be active somehow because I know I can do it. Strength is something to be glad for—and one needs it to be able to face the bare idea of going back to hell…[2]

 

Speaking of hell, Edmund Blunden has been in and out all autumn. Today, a century back–matching his memoir to the Battalion War Diary–he made it as far back as, if not quite paradise, something approaching the appropriate pastoral antithesis of Third Ypres…

A day or so later (my company being reconsigned to its ordinary commander) the battalion marched back several miles to another camp. The route lay through Kemmel, where we made a halt, wondering to see the comparatively sound state of the houses and particularly the chateau’s ridiculous mediaeval turrets in red brick. Its noble trees were a romance and poetry understood by all. The day was gloomy, but to be “stepping westward” among common things of life made it light enough. Gently the chestnut and aspen leaves were drifting down with the weight of the day’s dampness. We passed over hills still green, and by mossy cottages, with onions drying under the eaves. It was as though war forgot some corners of Flanders…

But that doesn’t mean that western Flanders can forget the war: their camp is no clutch of cozy cottages.

Our camp by Westoutre at length appeared, through a drifting rain, in the bottom of a valley, undisguised slabby clay; the houses hereabouts were mean, and no entertainment for the troops could be anticipated. Indeed, the mere physical needs were unanswered by the tattered canvas of this wretched open field. Protests were “forwarded,” and we were moved to a hutment camp in a wood, called Ottawa, as fine as the other was miserable…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193.
  3. Undertones of War, 255.